The Movie That's Stealing Harry Potter Fans
Award-winning novelist Neil Gaiman, whose children's book Coraline hits the big screen next week, on how to appeal to children after Harry Potter and what it takes to work on the same project for over a decade.
Neil Gaiman’s darkly comic novels have made him a god among modern-day goths and fantasy fans—think Tim Burton hotwired with Philip K. Dick. Across his two-decade career, the 48-year-old cult author has become a bestselling author, comic-book legend (his Sandman series are the sort of hyper-literate fantasy English majors only dream of writing), and an accomplished screenwriter ( Mirrormask). An animated film of his young-adult novel Coraline, about a girl who finds a secret world hidden behind a doorway in her London flat, will be released on February 6—from the team that created The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Daily Beast talked with Gaiman shortly after he was awarded a Newbery Medal for his new young-adult novel, The Graveyard Book, which will also become a feature film, directed by Neil Jordan.
Watch the Coraline Trailer
Tell me about writing children’s fiction in a post-Harry Potter world.
When I wrote Coraline in 1991, I showed it to my editor and he said, “It’s really good, may be the best thing you’ve ever done, but it is un-publishable. It’s horror for children and adults. Nobody knows how to publish that.” Fast forward to 2002—which, coincidentally, happened to be the first year in some time a Harry Potter book wasn’t coming out—and Coraline was being reviewed in lone articles, not squashed away with kids books. I thought, “My gosh, Harry Potter has changed the entire paradigm!”
The delight and joy of Harry Potter was of turning the pages and finding out what happens next. The Graveyard Book, to my surprise and delight, got the Newbery because it is a book that people turn the page to find out what happens next.
Both The Graveyard Book and Coraline are both very dark but nowhere near as sinister as your early fiction was.
You mean they lack things like people being eaten by vaginas?
Exactly that. How did starting a family change you as a writer between then and now?
When you’re starting out as a writer, you have the ghosts (even though they’re alive) of your parents looking over your shoulder. Oh my god, I’m writing a blowjob, what’s going to happen when my mum reads this?! Then just at the point when you free yourself of that, your children are old enough to read and you go, Oh my god, my kids are going to read this blowjob! You say, oh well, and you write the blowjob anyway.
I still get raked over the coals for my short story “The Problem With Susan.” It’s about Narnia. It ends with the lion and the witch having murdered all the children and indulging in sex on the green while the living severed heads of the kids watch. There are things I have written that are ways of saying, if you’re going to have a problem with this, get out now. By the end of chapter one in American Gods, a man has been wholly absorbed into a prostitute’s vagina. Word 15 of American Gods is “fuck.” So you can stop there if you need to. Go read something else about bunny rabbits.
I still get raked over the coals for my short story “The Problem With Susan.” It’s about Narnia. It ends with the lion and the witch having murdered all the children and indulging in sex on the green.
I think the most brutal part of The Graveyard Book is the ending though. It’s very unusual to have such a gray ending, where it’s not purely happy or purely sad, a definitive triumph of good or evil.
I love ambiguity in endings. I love anticlimax. I actually have to make myself go, no, you promised these guys, they’ve been with you for 400 pages, give them something. Then you can get to your anticlimax, that’ll be fun! At the end of The Graveyard Book, I found myself wanting to talk about the tragedy that is also the joy of parenthood. If you do your job right as a parent, then your children go away. It is heartrending.
Both my mother and my father, who did a decent job themselves I think, read to me all throughout my childhood. You have a long history of doing your own audiobooks, reading your own stories. What’s the appeal of reading your own text to others?
Part of it is having read to my kids every night. I loved that. Part of it is, and I know how this sounds, I’m good at it. I found out I was good at it reading the story “Chivalry” at a convention in 1991. I did all the voices, the audience laughed at all the right places. Then the guy after me came on. I’d read his story, it was an exciting swashbuckler. He started reading and it was (in a robot voice), “Then the door opened. Then the sultan’s man came in. I jumped on the table. I grabbed a knife. He grabbed his scimitar.” I’m listening to this thinking, can’t you hear the music!?
What’s the one medium where you haven’t told a story yet?
I’d like to write an original musical. If you get them right, they plug straight into the emotions in a way that reminds me a lot of comics. The musical isn’t a gutter medium. Stephen Sondheim’s been working in it for 50 years.
In some 30 years, you’ve actually managed to make three films, two adaptations and an original with Mirrormask. Is it easier to get a fantasy movie made these days?
It is, chiefly because the cost of computer animation has come down so much. I was at the Sundance Film Festival with Mirrormask some years ago and all the people up on the stage were from big-budget Hollywood Movie World. Someone in the audience stood up and said, “I don’t get how this is Sundance, the independent film festival, and yet you are making the $100 million movies.” The head of Sony Image Works looked him in the eye and said, “That’s because we are the R&D departments for the $2 million movies you’ll make in five years.” It was true. We’re at a point now where it’s not easy, but doable to put anything you can imagine on screen. There are amazing things being done in fan-fiction, stuff on YouTube made for little or no money.
It’s interesting that you should bring up fan-fiction considering the history of your work being adapted. Coraline the film is so different from Coraline the book. How does it feel, seeing your stories reinterpreted?
Again, the joy and the tragedy of parenthood. You’re doing something that is the equivalent of giving someone your baby. What you don’t want to do is say, “Soooooooo. The tattoos on that guy’s face. Where did they come from? We could have done without that piercing.”
How do you maintain enthusiasm for troubled projects? You mentioned that you started Coraline almost a decade and a half before it was finally published. You’ve been trying to get your film adaptation of Death: The High Cost of Living into production for almost as long.
I think you need to be mad. You need a certain amount of slightly focused madness that’s also belief in yourself in the face of all opposition. Without it, I would never have actually become a writer. I started out, sent things into the world, and the world sent them back explaining how they were not quite right for us. You need the kind of crazed, manic belief in yourself that means you can just keep going.
John Constantine is a journalist, author, and Associate Editor at Nerve.com. His ravings, meditations, and criticism about the artistic power of video games can be found daily at 61 Frames Per Second, Nerve’s recently launched gaming blog.